Yellow Fever in the Penitentiary

There are multiple theories as to how the yellow fever made its way into Huntsville during the summer of 1867. One of the town's inhabitants, a man named George Robinson who founded the Huntsville Item, speculated that the fever accompanied a stranger by the name of Mynatt into town. A few days after his arrival in Huntsville, Mynatt was taken down by the disease in a tavern, marking the first yellow fever-related fatality in the town. The prison, Mr. Robinson claimed, did not feel the fever’s effects until later. He did, however, acknowledge that his account was imperfect due to sparse records.

Another theory as to how the fever arrived in Huntsville established the penitentiary as the front line of the viral invasion. This theory claimed that the infected “stranger” had been one of seven prisoners who was transferred to the Huntsville prison from the county jail at Galveston, where yellow fever had already broken out. From the prison, the fever spread into Huntsville, devastating the town.

Whatever the order of events, multiple documents confirm that at least 40 inmates and 2 prison administrators contracted the disease in the penitentiary. In his report on the epidemic, Mr. Robinson contended that a much larger number of prison personnel were infected, including the supervisor, a financial agent, and multiple guards, along with some of the employees’ families. At least two of the prisoners who died of the fever—a thief named William Doss and another inmate (whose crime is unknown) named I. T. Doss—are buried in Oakwood Cemetery. It is possible, however, that other prisoners perished due to the fever as well and were buried in unmarked graves at the prison. As Mr. Robinson mournfully remarked in his account, “no legal record is kept of deaths,” meaning that many of those who died of the fever are lost to history.

Because yellow fever spread so quickly through the penitentiary in 1867, prison employees and government officials became more cautious when transferring convicts to Huntsville in subsequent years. In 1868, a prison administrator named G. C. Bill wrote to Governor Pease requesting that inmates being transferred to Huntsville from infected towns be detained in a remote location until it could be determined that they were healthy:

Huntsville July 13, 1868
Hon. E. M. Pease
Dr Sir,
It is not unlikely that Yellow Fever may prevail in the cities of Galveston and Houston, this summer or fall, and as the criminal court is held in and one the other place every month, it may well be anticipated that convicts will be sent from these cities, whe [sic] if received into the Penitentiary, would endanger the health of the Prison, as well as the citizens of Huntsville and vicinity I respectfully request that in the event convicts shall be sent from any infected district I be authorize to detain them at a suitable distance from town, where they can be guarded and cared for until such time as it will be safe to receive them into the Prison.
Very respectfully,
Your Obt. Servant
G. C. Bill